Cochineal are amazing and very interesting insects. Outwardly, they resemble aphids, although researchers and zoologists classify them as worms. They exist on the territory of the African continent, as well as in many other countries and regions of the world. Male and female individuals have significant differences not only in external features, but also in the development cycle. There are several varieties of cochineal that live in different regions. In many literary sources it is found under the name cochineal mealybug.
View origin and description
Cochineal belongs to the hemipteran insects. Scientists cannot name the exact period of origin of these insects. Even in the bible, purple dye was mentioned, which was extracted from the burgundy worm.
Interesting fact: Surprisingly, a special dye is extracted from the females of these insects. For this, insects that did not have time to lay their eggs are harvested by hand. Then, under the action of high temperatures or with the help of acetic acid, it is dried and ground into powder. It has been established that a single insect, which is no larger than two millimeters, can produce a dye that is enough to dye a material several centimeters in size.
Even in Ancient Russia, people were very interested in the extraction and breeding of an insect to obtain a dye. In 1768, Catherine 2 issued a decree in which she indicated the need to search for a mealybug on the territory of the Russian Federation. Somewhat later, in 1804, Prince Rumyantsev turned to Prince Kurakin with a request to process all the available information about the little-studied worm in the territory of Little Russia. Kurakin, in turn, collects a complete list of information: a description of the appearance, life cycle, habitat, cost at the time of study. He also studied in detail the rules and methods of collection, as well as the technology for obtaining a coloring pigment.
After that, the insect began to be widely bred in artificial conditions to obtain a color pigment. It has been widely used in various industries. In the 20th century, the production of synthetic dyes was established, which contributes to a sharp decrease in the use of natural dyes, which were extracted from cochineal. However, it was still used in pharmacology, food processing, perfumery, etc.
Appearance and features
Individuals of the female and male sexes differ significantly from each other in appearance. Females are distinguished by a slightly elongated, convex body. They do not have wings and look like ordinary small bugs. The size of the body is about 1-10 millimeters, the body size of males is much smaller, and is 2-6 millimeters. Body weight is only a few grams. The body is painted in a rich, cherry color.
On the body of female individuals there are special wax-secreting glands that secrete a special secret that forms a protective shell. It has a gray-white color. The body of the worms is covered with thin, long villi. On the body of insects there are so-called grooves that divide the body into longitudinal sections and transverse rings. Insects have a head section, which is separated from the body by a deep groove. In the region of the head section there are simply arranged, slightly bulging eyes. In males, the eyes are more complex, faceted, much larger.
Male individuals who have gone through the full cycle of their development, outwardly resemble mosquitoes. They have wings and can even fly. Also, they are distinguished from females by a kind of jewelry – long trains of white or milky fibers. Their length is several times the length of the body. Insects have three pairs of limbs with which they move, and can leave their shelters by crawling to the surface.
Where does cochineal live?
The distribution area of this insect species is quite large. There are several species of insect, each of which occupies a certain region. South America is considered to be the historical homeland.
Geographical regions of cochineal habitat:
- Armenia, mainly the coast of the Arak River;
- some regions of Azerbaijan;
- some regions of Belarus;
- almost all of Ukraine;
- Tambov region;
- separate regions of Western Europe;
- Asian countries;
Insects thrive in saline deserts and where cactus plantations grow. In the 16th century, a variety of cactus, which was mainly parasitized by insects, was brought to European countries and learned to grow them there. After that, the red mealybug began to be successfully bred in artificial conditions.
In some countries and regions, special farms have been established, where cochineal is massively bred. Such farms existed in Guatemala, on the Canary Islands, in Spain, on the territory of the African Islands. A huge number of insects were collected in Mexico and Peru, where to this day a natural dye is extracted from the mealybugs. In Europe, they also tried to create such farms, but these attempts were not so successful due to the peculiarities of climatic conditions and lack of experience and knowledge.
Now you know where cochineal is found. Let’s see what this insect eats.
What does the cochineal eat?
Cochineal is a parasite. The insect lives off the plants. With the help of special proboscis, it sticks to the vaginal part of the plants and feeds on juice throughout its life. Males tend to move from one plant to another. Females spend their entire lives on only one plant. They literally bite into it tightly. That is why the workers who collect insects have to literally rip them off from wide leaves with a stiff brush.
Fun fact: Insects get their cherry color from eating the juice of red cactus berries.
If there is enough food supply, then insects actively breed right on the surface of the leaves. Due to this, on many farms where bugs are grown in artificial conditions, they are not collected with brushes or other devices, but simply plucked leaves and store them in special hangars. Thus, while the plant remains viable, insects live and multiply on them. As soon as the foliage of the cactus begins to dry, the cochineal is harvested and processed to obtain a red color pigment.
Character and lifestyle features
The insect belongs to primitive creatures, leads a predominantly underground lifestyle. On the surface is selected only during the breeding season. Females lead a parasitic lifestyle. They spend their entire short life on one plant, and never leave it. They literally stick to it.
To date, scientists are collecting as much information as possible about the features of the life of an insect. This is due to the fact that in recent years, interest in it as a source of dye has again increased.
It is known that female individuals are selected to the surface of the soil only at the moment when it is time to breed. Most often this happens around September. It is during this period that insects mate, after which they die. Females live one month longer than males. This is due to the need to leave offspring.
Insects are inactive, especially females. Males move somewhat more, and faster due to the structure of the limbs and the presence of one pair of wings. By nature, insects are quite voracious, especially females during the breeding season.
It is noteworthy that female larvae first acquire a pear-shaped shape, then elliptical, or simply round. At this time, they lose their antennae and limbs, forming a cyst. The formation of cysts is characteristic of both females and males.
Social structure and reproduction
At that moment, when female and male individuals are ready for reproduction, they crawl out to the surface of the earth. Immediately after fertilization of the female, the male dies. A female individual lives about 28-30 days more. In females that have climbed to the surface, almost the entire abdominal cavity is occupied by the reproductive system.
It is represented by the following organs:
- two ovaries;
- paired and unpaired oviducts;
After mating has occurred, the female is buried back into the soil to a depth of 1.5-2 centimeters. In the soil, females with the help of their glands weave special threads from which a bag is formed, or a cocoon for eggs. Each female gives one offspring. At one time, she is able to lay up to 800-1000 eggs. After the eggs are securely hidden in a cocoon, the female lays down and dies, covering them with her body. Subsequently, it will serve as protection for future offspring.
In the ground under the body of the female, in a protective cocoon, they spend about 7-8 months. At the end of March, at the beginning of April, long, elongated larvae hatch from the larvae. They are characterized by the presence of antennae, limbs, as well as long bristles in the form of proboscis. With the help of these bristles, the females stick to the plants on which they will parasitize. The females then gradually increase in size, lose their antennae and limbs, and create a cyst. It is also common for males to create a cyst. However, the cyst size of males is about half that of females. Around the end of summer, the formed cysts undergo metamorphosis, during which limbs and antennae form in females.
Natural enemies of cochineals
When living in natural conditions, insects have practically no natural enemies. This is due to the fact that they are not a source of food for birds, other insects or animals. Man is considered the only enemy of cochineal. Previously, insects were destroyed in large quantities in order to obtain the so-called color dye – carmine. This type of dye is found under the name carmine, or food additive E 120. The scope and use of carmine is very wide.
Where the color pigment is used:
- Food industry. It is added to carbonated and alcoholic drinks, in the production of meat products, confectionery, jelly, marmalade, ice cream, sauces, breakfast cereals;
- Manufacturing of cosmetics and perfumes. The pigment is added to lipstick, lip gloss, blush, eye shadow, etc.;
- Personal care products. These include soaps, shower gels, toothpastes, etc.;
- Textile industry. Production and dyeing of fabrics, threads, fibers;
- Production of dairy desserts. Making glazes, jams, marmalades, some types of sweets.
There is a high probability of carmine content in products that taste or smell of strawberries, raspberries, strawberries or cherries.
Population and species status
Nothing threatens the cochineal population today. However, there were times when it was practically not found in its natural habitat. This was due to the mass collection of the insect in huge quantities, as well as the extermination of the green leaves of the cactus along with insects.
In the 19th century, insects were almost completely exterminated. After that, they began to massively create farms for the artificial cultivation and breeding of cochineal. A reserve was also created. Scientists were able to develop a special strategy that allows you to get up to 5-6 times more insects than would be possible in natural conditions.
During the period when people learned to actively produce synthetic dyes, the need to obtain carmine automatically disappeared. Insect farms continued to exist solely to increase the number of insects and prevent their complete extinction. However, over time, the benefits of using synthetic dyes began to be doubted, and then they were declared to be carcinogenic and harmful to health.
Cochineal are amazing insects that have long been used by mankind to produce red carmine dye. Currently, it is also used in pharmacology and the food industry.